By Allie Binford
While most of the internship and job search process is consistent across the public relations industry, there is one inconsistent factor: the cover letter. Some companies require them, some make them optional, and some ditch them altogether.
When applying for internships and jobs in any field, it’s important to put your best foot forward in every aspect of your application. Combing through your résumé, perfecting your essay responses and correctly filling out your personal information are all important and time-consuming components of the process, but, for some, the most uncertain element is the cover letter.
While some employers have done away with the cover letter completely, the companies that are making the letter optional are posing an opportunity for applicants to go the extra mile. For those new to the job hunt or looking to freshen up their applications, the elements of this difficult document are broken down below.
Where to start
First and foremost, the golden rule of a cover letter is to address it to a human being. If the name of the hiring manager or recruiter is not mentioned on the application or website, job seekers should take the initiative to call and ask.
“When in doubt, call the agency or company to determine who receives résumés,” Ron Culp, public relations consultant and professional director of the graduate PR and advertising program at DePaul University, said in an article on his professional blog, culpwrit.com.
All it takes is a five-minute phone call with the agency or company receptionist to make a good impression within the first line of the letter. When a cover letter starts with an impersonal introduction, the reader can already gauge the level of effort put into the application while quickly losing interest in reading the rest of the page.
What to include
Take the time to make the message personal to both the recipient and the job, and the reader will be more inclined to read past the first few sentences.
Like any writing assignment in PR, make every word count. Some larger companies use digital scanning processes before the applications actually get put in the hands of recruiters, so using key words and phrases from the job description can help you get your foot in the door.
“(In my cover letters) I focused on looking at the job or internship description and outlining exactly how I aligned to those competencies and capabilities that were listed,” Kristen Ellis, assistant account executive at Porter Novelli, said.
Even without a prescreening process, it is important to tailor the message to the specific qualities mentioned in the job description in order to keep the reader’s attention and provide as much relevant information as possible. There’s no reason to waste space on the page about anything unrelated to the task at hand. Be thorough in addressing the desired traits and your interest in the position, but remember to keep it concise and stick to what you know. Never write something into a cover letter unless you know for sure you can back your claims up with evidence.
“Don’t overestimate what the job entails,” Culp said in a recent interview. “Lengthy cover letters can make assumptions or assume things about the job that are not correct. You want a cover letter to open doors for you; you don’t want them to slam the door in your face before you get the opportunity.”
The cover letter’s value
Contrary to popular belief, according to Forbes, employers tend to read cover letters after an applicant’s résumé piques their interest. So, rather than being an introduction to an application, the cover letter is more of a supplementary piece that can push an applicant above and beyond.
“Your résumé is kind of like a great cup of coffee and great on its own, but the cover letter really sends it over the edge. It’s almost like adding that creamer and sugar — not to get too cheesy,” Ellis said.
Having a well-written cover letter can be what sets you apart from other applicants who are similar to you on paper.
“I feel like cover letters generally go unread but if it comes down to two candidates, they would be more likely to choose the one with the better note,” Culp said.
Whether you want to score an internship at a big city firm or an agency closer to home, writing a personalized and concise cover letter is an integral asset to your application.
Allison Binford is a junior from Memphis, Tenn. majoring in PR and minoring in psychology at the University of Alabama. Active in several campus organizations, Allie is a writer and editor of the program’s Platform Magazine where this article also appears.